Now I'm a member of that hardliner fraction that emphasizes the "Free" aspect of Free Software (or Open Source, whatever), because it empowers users to choose which tools I can use to operate on any given set of data - as long as that data is available at all and follows open standards. I'm delighted that, nowadays, I can run my system on an open kernel with open drivers, get 3D accelleration from an open X Window System, and have it all fall into place with the wonderful KDE 4.1 desktop (shameless plug). It's all software that I can trust, because the Open Source development model guarantees that the code won't be stripped of crucial features or spiced up with indiscrete phone-home functionality and advertisements. I know that I'll be able to swap applications while still keeping all the important data, and I know that if something goes wrong, everything will still be alright in the end.
With a tad of worry, I watch the trend of people giving away lots and lots of personal data to the web, in exchange for comfort or reliability. Mails keep being stored by GMail or other mail providers with fancy web interfaces, pulling them away and on one's own system with POP3 is a dying practice. Life is being captured in Blogger, Facebook and Twitter. If I want to browse through my friends' photo albums, I need to register on StudiVZ (German Facebook rip-off) because that's where they store them. Those services are provided by people who I do not trust to do the right thing, because even if the web sites run Free Software, the way it works does not guarantee that my data is safe and my interests are being followed - it might just not match the business model of the web site providers.
If you think that sounds like a lot of paranoia, you're probably right. Still, the point that I'd like to make is that we had all of this before: the user depending on proprietary software that controls what happens to the data, and thus creating vendor lock-in - which is a network effect, and causes more people to use the same software. As the desktop is slowly being freed from lock-in, the exact same thing is now being shifted onto the net. Instead of having to trust Microsoft for their office data, people now have to trust Facebook for their social online life. The only difference is that MS Office costs lots of money while Facebook is free (as in beer), because of their business model.
As of today, the web is not open. The GPL is the new BSD, and the web is the new freeware (not to be confused with Free Software). In order to let users keep the freedom that is now available (and usable) on the desktop, open source web software must work on decentralizing the web. Users should be able to keep their own web presence like they keep their desktop system: personal, trusted and only passing data around when that is desired. It shouldn't be necessary to have a single huge web site where the data of all different users comes together; instead, users would have their own data store that, for example, sends out twitter updates to the data stores of all the intended receivers. Instead of a central site that's in charge of everything, lots of small sites would communicate with each other, and the user would be in control of the data.
If the web replaces the desktop, it should be judged by the same criteria, and that goes not only for bling and usability but also for openness. Personally, I think that centralized, data-centric web applications are the biggest threat for openness and self-determined choice of client software since MS Office came around, and Google is doing well covering that issue by supporting Open Source where it doesn't hurt their main strategy. But at least they're being honest about it and try to do it nicely: I'm still a big fan of the Summer of Code and GHOP programs :P
In other news, both my Japan/India trip and Drupalcon were a blast, and I'm finally going into stealth mode now. See you later!